A Lesson On Powerlessness
In the first words of the first verse of Mark 3, Jesus entered into the synagogue, and it is very significant that for this lesson on powerlessness the Lord should take us there. I believe that it is within the sphere of church life that there are to be found the greatest spiritual tragedies, the severest spiritual breakdowns, the most appalling futility and the most desperate need.
God’s problems are not with His enemies—He has no problem with the world because the Lord Jesus said, “I have overcome the world.” He has no problem with the Devil because He stripped from Himself principalities and powers at the Cross and overcame them. God has only one problem: it is with His friends—with His people. That is where the greatest miracles are needed today. That is where He must display His healing and delivering power. The need of a city is obvious. The need in a church is often overlooked and ignored, but revival there is the key to blessing everywhere else.
Every miracle of our Lord is a parable. I do not mean to suggest that the miracle did not actually happen. Of course it did, but it still is an example of what the same living Christ can do in your life today by His Spirit.
I see in this story in the third chapter of Mark a strange, almost uncomfortable likeness to the situation in Christian lives today, and an amazing demonstration of what God, by the power of His Spirit, can do. Notice, in the first place, we are introduced to one whom I can only describe as a powerless cripple—a man who had a withered hand. Luke tells us in his version of this incident that it was his right hand—the symbol of service, the symbol of authority, the place of power: withered.
I do not know that I can convey to you the shattering implication of that word withered, except perhaps if I remind you that Mark uses the same word again in chapter 11 and verse 20, where he speaks about a fig tree which Jesus had cursed. As they passed by, Mark said that they saw that it was dried up at the roots, withered. Do you see the picture? Just as that man’s awful physical condition was a symptom of a disease that lay deeper, so the paralysis and powerlessness in our service for God and in our professing Christian life are a symptom of something that is far deeper. We are no longer able to speak with authority, no longer able to bring blessing to anybody—dried up from the roots.
That is what sin always does in a life. It takes power out of service, takes the spring out of your step, takes the joy out of your life, takes the testimony out of your lips, takes the peace out of your heart and leaves an awful paralysis of soul. Only the person who has been through the experience knows that the river of Life—the river of Holy Spirit Life—has dried up within. This man who is a cripple spiritually still goes through the motions. He still goes through the day, but life has become to him nothing more than just a weary, monotonous existence, living in a barrenness and a deadness which I cannot describe except to use this graphic expression: dried up at the roots.
Focus your attention just a moment upon this man’s spiritual condition, using this miracle in exposition as a parable. I wonder if there is some reader of whom it would be said, “he has dried up spiritually at the roots.” Is that true of you? Are you keeping the motions going, keeping the service going, keeping the work going, keeping your life going? Somehow the spring has gone, and the joy has gone. The reality of Christ is not there—the touch of power is merely a thing of the past and the liberty that you once knew is departed from you. This man’s condition is a graphic picture of the urgent need of spiritual cripples. Oh, the powerlessness that has gotten hold of many of us who profess to belong to Jesus.
But there is another picture here of powerlessness which seems to me almost more pathetic. Not only does this story bring to us the picture of a powerless cripple, but it also brings to us the picture of a powerless channel. Look at the second verse, “They watched Him whether He would heal on the Sabbath day that they might accuse Him.” What shall we say of those Pharisees? Here we have not only withered hands, but we have withered minds and hearts.
They are supposed to be the channels through whom God was going to bring His message of redemption to the world, but they had become unfeeling, obstinate, unsympathetic, careless. Their only concern now was what they might do about the Lord Jesus to get rid of Him, and whatever Christ said they would be sure to oppose Him. They would not see the truth no matter how clearly it was preached. They pulled down the shutters of their minds, they slammed the door of their souls and listened utterly and completely critical, dead, silent, and unresponsive. Though perhaps things happened which forced them to see that after all God was working, they would never acknowledge the authority of the Word of God. It could come to them with sledge hammer blows in the power of God’s Spirit, but there is no child who could close his teeth more firmly against a dose of medicine than these Pharisees could resist the Gospel. The one thing they did do was to seek to find flaws in Christ Himself. While fighting against Him, they pretended to be with Him.
Does that disease come close to you today? Is there a heart insensible to the Word of God? Once you were deeply moved, once perhaps tender, once perhaps emotionally disturbed, but now—no conviction; now, only bitter resistance to the Holy Spirit; now, only seeking to find perhaps a flaw in the presentation of the Word. Oh, the tragedy of the terrible desperate limits to which Satan drives people once they begin a point of resistance to the Holy Spirit, until they become incapable of responding to the ministry of the Word.
Now, here is the canvas, the platform upon which the Lord Jesus needs to display His power. Here is the appalling need—on the one hand spiritual paralysis, on the other hand spiritual conceit, and everywhere spiritual powerlessness. On the one hand a poor man whose hand is withered; on the one hand Christian people who have lost their joy and into whose lives sin has come and taken away all the reality of the power of Jesus Christ. On the other hand people who have grown cold and dead and orthodox and dull and insensible to reality and to the conviction of the Spirit. This, to me, presents something that grips my heart with a sense, almost of horror, as I think of the awful desperate need within professing Christianity today. It may be that you have found yourself in this picture.
How can we deal with powerlessness? How can we reach those without God? How can we touch the need of a city without Christ? We cannot, unless cripples are turned into miracles and unless orthodoxy becomes charged with life and is delivered from its deadness.
What do we see about the Lord Jesus in this portion? In the first place we notice an angry look. You could almost picture it in the 5th verse, “When He had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts.” He looked round about them in anger. Can you picture that scene—the Lord Jesus standing up there boldly in the synagogue unafraid of any of them? He had nothing to conceal in His own life or ministry. Imagine the power of that look as He looked round about them. I do not believe there was a single individual who escaped the penetration of the stare of the Lord Jesus that day. I believe they would gladly have shrunk out of His sight as He stood there with a look upon His face mingled with rage and anger and grief and heartbreak.
There are many times when we need the comforting look of the Lord Jesus Christ; there are many times when we need that look of His eye with which He said He will guide His people. But I think also sometimes we need to sense that look of anger, of sorrow, of heartbreak as He looks down upon a helpless, paralyzed church in this desperate day in which we live. I wish that somehow Jesus might look again into our hearts like that. What would He see?
Would He be angry with the coldness of our orthodoxy, our indifference to the need of others and our determination to resist anything that savours of a movement of the Spirit of God. Does Jesus look down like that at you today?
But how will He look at those who are paralyzed? Ah, he did not look at this paralyzed cripple like that with any sense of anger. There is not an angry look here, but as we turn from the picture of the Pharisaism that is hopelessly dead, we find the Lord Jesus issuing to this man an authoritative word. Notice it in the 3rd verse, “Stand forth.” Or if you read your margins, “Stand forth in the midst of them.”
I want to speak to paralyzed souls who know they ought to be living on a higher level than they are. I want to speak to hearts tenderly where there is sin, and breakdown and this spiritual paralysis, and where there is lost contact, lost power, and a whole life being wasted. Jesus’ first word to you is, “Stand forth in the midst.”
He separated this man from the crowd and brought him and his disability into the full view of everybody. You can picture it as the main came out from among that congregation and stood there in the midst. Every eye was upon this poor, paralyzed cripple, and Jesus brought him before the public view in order that what He was going to do for the man might be seen openly by everybody. You who are spiritually dried up, the root of whose trouble is far deeper than something outward, but something deep in your own heart with the result that your heart and life are powerless and withered and your service is fruitless, His first word to you is this: are you prepared to stand forth in the midst, and let everybody know you are a spiritual cripple, and powerless, and useless? That is the beginning of the way into blessing.
Nobody can touch the hem of Christ’s garment and then run away when nobody knows about it and expect to be cured. It does not work like that. The only thing that really matters in spiritual experience is that which is an open declaration and which is desperately humiliating. Separate yourself from the crowd; get out from among the secret place where you hide and just make known openly before God and men that you are in desperate need. That is the first step into deliverance and blessing.
The second word that came is not only an authoritative look, but an authentic cure, “Stretch forth thine hand.” I want you to see what conversion really is and what salvation really implies and what it leads to, for here is a tremendous illustration of it.
Perhaps this man had longed to stretch out his hand for years, but had never been able to do it. He had attempted it perhaps a thousand times but it just hung limp at his side. Is the Lord Jesus being unreasonable with him, telling him to do something that he cannot do, simply to mock the poor man’s impotence and helplessness? Certainly he is absolutely incapable of obeying Him. But listen, a man’s helplessness and incapacity and absolute futility to do anything about his need is simply the platform upon which Jesus waits to display His saving power. The man who has openly stood forth in confession is one upon whose life the Lord Jesus waits to plant something that will be for His glory and grace. He commands the thing that seems to be impossible.
But mark you, this man was not only incapable of doing the thing but he was utterly willing for it to be done. There was no reservation whatsoever. How he longed for that hand to be just like the other one. The worst about some of us is just this, that we are powerless and we know it, but deep down in our hearts the roots have dried up, the river of Life is dry, the experience is barren and the service is fruitless, but we want to be like that. Before you challenge that, wait a moment. Of course you want to escape judgment, get out of Hell, and want to be away from God’s condemnation. Have you ever met a thief who did not want to escape going to prison? But the Gospel is not a proclamation to escape from Hell. That is the consequence of accepting the Power of the Gospel. What is the Gospel? It is simply this: do you want to be saved from the habit of sin, from selfish living, from the ability of doing the thing that is wrong, and enjoying it? Do you really want deliverance from yourself? From that which is at the root of all the breakdown in service and all the powerlessness in testimony? That is the Gospel.
It is not whether you want to get out of Hell. It is whether you want to escape from yourself, and from the thing that is at the root that makes your life so powerless and so fruitless. The fact is simply this, that as long as you look at yourself this command of the Lord Jesus is absolutely an impossibility, but the moment you stop looking at your withered hand and start looking at His wonderful lovely face and, as it were, up from the ugliness of self to look into His face, then when he says, “stretch forth thine hand—do the thing that is impossible,” His command is not only possible, it is right. It is reasonable.
I would ask you just this moment to turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look up into His face and catch the look that comes from Him to you. Stretch forth thine hand—and immediately the issue is not can you, but will you. That is the only Gospel I know, the only New Testament authoritative message concerning salvation. It is not, “Come to Jesus to escape from Hell.” Just look into the face of Jesus and you will know you cannot go on living as you have. You will know you cannot continue serving like this and being so powerless because you have looked into His face, and know He is demanding the thing that is impossible but the thing that is absolutely right.
You see, Jesus was there not only to expose this man’s weakness but to cancel it out. When He said, “Stretch forth thine hand,” it was not only that everybody should see his need, but to send him back into the congregation that all might marvel at the power of God. He always brings a man face to face with the impossible.
Let me illustrate all that has been said from the Word of God. For instance, we listen to the Old Testament command, “Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts,” and I say that is impossible. We listen to the command of the Lord Jesus, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself,” and I say that is impossible. Why do I say that is impossible? Because your inability to face this is rooted in just one thing—a habit which has mastered you and which you are just not willing to forsake at any price, and you say, “I can’t.” Be honest, it is not that you can’t, it is that you won’t.
Observe that this man did exactly what the Lord Jesus commanded him to do. That was an act of faith, an act of decision. He did not say, “I will go home and pray about it. I will think it over, and come to church next week and make my decision then.” No—it was immediate action, immediate response to the command of the Lord Jesus. I want to make myself perfectly clear and say to you that this is the only place where genuine Christian experience begins.
I am concerned that somebody’s paralysis might end. It means an honest willingness for the Lord to strike at the root of the whole trouble and deal with the self that is there. For there is no salvation apart from a God-given, Holy Spirit worked-out repentance. When He says to you, “Believe in My power,” and you say, “I can’t,” and when He says, “Repent of this and expose the need of your life and come to me and stretch forth your hand,” there is only one thing you can say to Him in absolute helplessness, “Lord Jesus, give me the faith you are asking for, the repentance you want from me today.” How wonderfully Christ deals with souls who are dead in sin.
The trouble is that we will not admit that we are as bad as we really are. We will not admit that we just cannot trust, or repent, or believe. We try and work up our faith and our repentance. We say we are sorry and come to the front of the church, but then go back and sin again. It is all an effort to do it, but listen—it is only the Holy Spirit today who can do it all. This is what he does.
First, He speaks the word of command, “Stretch forth thine hand,” and I look up into His face and see there that it is the only thing that I have to do. I have to get right with God; I cannot go on living in paralysis. Somehow He has spoken with authority and made me willing, and my heart goes up to Him in prayer and says, “Oh, God, give me faith, give me repentance.” And in answer to that prayer, there comes the power and the ability.
The command of Scripture is, “Make you a new heart,” as God said through Ezekiel. I hear David saying, “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” and I hear the promise coming back from heaven, “A new heart will I give you.” Listen again to the command of God to His people, “Turn ye, turn ye O house of Israel, why will ye die?” I hear the prophet Jeremiah speaking back in the prayer, “Turn us, O God, and then we shall be turned.” I hear the Word coming down through the New Testament, “God hath sent Him—the Lord Jesus—to bless us by turning every one of us away from our sin.” I hear the command again, “Sing praise to God, sing praise,” and I hear the prayer, “Open thou my lips and my mouth shall show forth Thy praise.” I hear the promise come back, “This people that I have formed for myself, they shall show forth my praise.” Do you see His way? Do you see the way through into deliverance? Stretch forth thine hand—that is the command, and in answer to that command there comes from your heart the prayer, “Oh God, give me faith to do it. Give me the power to repent.” There comes in that moment of willingness the grace and the ability and the power to obey. Is there a longing in your heart that the root of your trouble might be dealt with and the inability cancelled out? Stretch forth thine hand.
My final word is this, “He stretched out his hand, and it was restored whole as the other.” Isn’t that wonderful? Restored whole as the other—immediate, perfect. The Lord is not interested in taking a crowd of spiritual cripples through a spiritual hospital and ultimately into Heaven. He is interested in making men whole. May I say this one thing for I think it is implied in this story: the restored hand was made whole in order that it might be put on the plough, never to turn back. Picture this man with life tingling in his veins. The blood is starting to flow again, and his hand is whole. He is so thrilled with it that he says to himself and to the people, “I had better put it in a sling—I must bandage it up. It has been paralyzed for a long time, and I must keep it carefully.” In about a week’s time it will be paralyzed again. It was restored whole for service and for usefulness. It had been touched by a hand nailed to a cross, and that hand was to be put upon the plough never to turn back.
Stretch out your hand to Jesus today. Stand forth in the midst, and receive a cure that is permanent. Friends, run to the Lord Jesus today. I do not care if there are a thousand devils by your side saying, “hold tight, don’t do anything about it.” Run to the Lord Jesus and stand forth in the midst of them. Stretch out your hand, and expose your need. Tell Him you long for His power, and at that moment He is there, in the midst.
But if perhaps your heart is impenetrable, your mind is hardened to truth and you could not care less about the thing of which I have spoken, I would leave you with a word of great comfort. The Bible says, “I will give you a new heart, and put a new heart within you.” Today if there be withered hands or withered minds or withered hearts, you are in the presence of a victorious Christ who can deal with it all. Just ask Him to.